“Are there things that can’t be forgiven?” Jewish law deemed some acts so heinous that only death atoned – and then only with repentance (Yoma 86a; Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1). And even with repentance, how can we absolve genocide, murder, sex crimes, child abuse and life-destroying lies?
But “forgiveness” isn’t absolution. We can “forgive” even the seemingly unforgivable – even if someone doesn’t deserve it – because we ourselves deserve it. We deserve the peace that can come by releasing pain, grudge and betrayal. That’s real forgiveness.
Forgiveness doesn’t absolve wrongs or withhold justice. Rather, forgiveness helps us live resiliently amidst brokenness. Forgiveness is among our most powerful spiritual tools – and sometimes an exquisitely difficult tool to use.
Consider the 2015 Charleston church shooting – domestic terrorism targeting innocents. The triggerman confessed to wanting a race war. How does anyone “forgive” that? But the victims’ families did forgive, as an exquisite act of inner courage – not to absolve heinous wrong or inhibit justice, but to find peace.
Such forgiveness evokes grace – in Hebrew, chein, one of the Thirteen Attributes of God’s self-revelation to Moses after he shattered the first Tablets on the Golden Calf (Exodus 34:6). By its nature, grace can’t be deserved: it’s a spiritual gift we receive because we are. And this same God of chein also was a God of justice.
We can forgive in that same way – in God’s grace, after the shattering, to seek peace.
Rabbi David Evan Markus is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY); judicial referee in New York Supreme Court; rabbinics faculty at the Academy for Jewish Religion; and Senior Builder for Bayit: Building Jewish.